Archive for June, 2014

John 20:19-23

June 9, 2014


“The doors were locked for fear of the Jews.”  This passage from the Gospel of John makes my heart sink… and not only mine.  For going on 2,000 years this passage and others in the same vein have caused inconceivable suffering.  I didn’t always see this.  Let me tell you how my eyes were opened.

In 2001 James Carroll published Constantine’s Sword.  Filling over 750 pages, Carroll records the appalling history of Christianity’s persecution of the Jews.  I cannot remember reading a more shattering book.  It details not only 2,000 years of persecutions and pogroms, but it quotes from revered church fathers — St. Augustine, for instance — vicious diatribes against the Jews.  I finished the book, closed the covers and wept.  Christianity didn’t cause the Holocaust, but without Christianity it never could have happened.

What is the connection?  Dozens of places in the New Testament either denigrate Judaism or revile Jews.  Here, for instance, it makes Jews a group to be feared.  This has gone on for nearly 2,000 years, to devastating effect.  To this day many “good” Christians resent Jews for killing Jesus… and not only that, but blame them for many of society’s ills.

What a travesty!  Jesus taught and modeled nothing but love of our neighbor; yet many of his followers have hated their Jewish neighbors — neighbors who were and are Jesus’ own people.  Today we heard that the disciples had locked the doors to the upper room “for fear of the Jews.”  Read through the Gospel of John.  You’ll be struck by how John scarcely misses a chance to cast the Jews in a bad light.  For instance, John could have made his point by saying that the doors were locked for fear, period.  Or he could have said, “for fear of the authorities.”  After all, everyone inside the room was a Jew.  What John wrote makes no sense.

This Gospel and similar parts of the New Testament have made “the Jews” shorthand for: narrow-mindedness; rigidity; the letter of the law, but not the spirit; a dry, legalistic approach to religion — in short, the opposite of everything Jesus stood for.  The result?  For 2,000 years Jewish people and communities have suffered.

How did this come about?  The short answer is: almost from the beginning, the Gospels and the book of Acts have been read as history, possibly even as eye-witness accounts.  When Diane Sawyer interviewed Mel Gibson about “The Passion of Christ,” she asked him why he had shown the Jews’ torture of Jesus in such a violent way.  He replied, “Well, it’s history.”  She, equally ignorant, agreed.

It is not history.  Over two generations lay between Jesus’ life and the writing of John’s Gospel.  And John’s Gospel was not written in the Holy Land, but in the diaspora, somewhere in modern day Turkey.  Also, its writer depended on a number of different sources, apparently none of them being the other Gospels.  It is called the fourth Gospel, because it was written last.  So why, being so removed from the actual events, does John’s Gospel portray the Jews in such a hostile spirit and pit them against Jesus if that was not the case?

One cataclysmic event lay between Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the writing of the four Gospels.  In the year 70 AD, 30 years after Jesus’ death, Roman armies destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.  In a stroke the whole structure and center of Judaism was wiped out; the economic system toppled; and a large part of the government of Judea ceased to function.

Until that point, Judaism, like Christianity today, had a number of different — let’s call them denominations.  And the Nazarenes, as Jesus’ followers were called, were just one among them.  Each had its adherents and its place in society, and all found their center in the Temple.  But when the Romans destroyed the Temple, they nearly destroyed the identity of the Jewish people, including Jesus’ people.  If, up until then, all Jews had met God in the Temple, where could they now go to worship?  Where go to connect with God?  To identify themselves with the one true God?

Of the many different sects of Judaism that existed before 70 AD, only two survived, the Pharisees and the Nazarenes.  The Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the Rabbis, countered the loss of the Temple by saying that the place to come into the presence of God was in the Holy Scriptures.  The Nazarenes, Jesus’ followers, said the place to come into the presence of  God was in the risen Christ.

At that time these two Jewish sects were not very different; and the Nazarenes and the followers of the Pharisees mingled freely.  So as the years went by, the problem became: how shall we distinguish our own identity over and against the other group?

The best scholarly opinion today sees this situation as the setting in which John wrote his Gospel.  To separate his flock from the larger herd, he chose to vilify the Rabbinic, or Pharisaic, school, imputing to them all the negative qualities I mentioned before.  It’s a time-honored strategy of polarization.  To our everlasting sorrow, John’s strategy went far beyond what he intended, and Jews are still paying the price down to the present day.

This raises the question: how is the Bible the Word of God, if it perverts the Second Commandment?  It says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   Let me tell you how I answer this question, and see if it works for you.  I’ll use that verse from today’s reading, “…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”

I always start from the bedrock belief that the Bible is a divinely inspired guide book.  Its sole purpose is to help us find our way to the greatest fullness of life — us as individuals and us as a society.  It is never history nor a book of facts; though it may contain some history, it is far more serious than that.  It’s about finding eternal life — peace, joy, freedom and love — in this very present moment.

So what guidance can we find in this detail about the doors being locked?  First, note that the disciples were afraid.  Their fear put them in a prison of their own making.  Then — the doors still locked — suddenly Jesus was among them.  Fear vanished.  We sometimes let fear lock us into an inner prison; and we may believe that Jesus is locked out.  This small detail tells us that nothing can keep Jesus from entering that cramped little cage we’ve created, and leading us by the hand out into the vast space of freedom.  Fear is never a property of anything outside of us; it rises up within us.

Second, note that the the Gospel names what they feared.  Though John labeled the focus of their fear falsely and cruelly, we do need to know what we fear, for the way to overcome fear is to face it, and stare it down to size.  Think of the way a pilot shrinks a hot air balloon down to nothing by turning the burner off.  We can do this when we know that Jesus is, so to speak, in the basket with us.

Take this one step further.  There was a time when I feared conflict.  Whether it involved me personally, or not, my brain went numb and I became tongue-tied when conflicts arose.  I knew I would not be an effective minister if that did not change.  By the grace of God and the power of prayer it did change.  Now when a conflict arises, I cannot say I welcome it; but it does remind me of the freedom I now feel and of Jesus’ very near presence.  So in short, something I kept at arm’s length due to fear, I now hold dear as a channel of gratitude.

So is the Bible the Word of God?  On this, the day of Pentecost,  we can give a resounding maybe!  It is not the Word of God if we read it only at the surface level; if we treat it as a rule book or a book of facts — as an object outside of ourselves to which we must submit our lives and our intelligence.  It is the Word of God if we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and it; to make a living dialogue possible between us and it.

I’ll close with a quick story.  There was once a great saint and she always carried on her person two pieces of paper.  In her right pocket the paper read, “Remember, you are dust.”  In her left pocket the paper read, “For you the universe was created.”  The secret, she said, was in knowing when to read which one.  In a living dialogue, the Bible will know when to chastise us, when to build us up, when to warn us, and above all, at all times, to assure us that we are wrapped in the loving arms of God.